The Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards, delivered by Unilever and the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, support and celebrate inspirational young people from all over the world who have initiatives, products or services tackling some of the planet’s biggest sustainability challenges.
Now in their sixth year, the Awards have reached over 5,800 entrepreneurs, and provided tailored support and funding to 37 winners – helping them achieve scale for impact. The world’s problems will only be solved with the ideas and talents of a new generation of leaders who are challenging business as usual. The Awards are an opportunity to support, inspire, reward and collaborate with these leaders; innovators who are addressing poverty and the broader SDGs with their entrepreneurship.
Through the awards not only do entrepreneurs win prize money, but more importantly they come to Cambridge for an accelerator programme, make connections within Unilever and other large organisations, and receive mentoring support for a year. All these elements are aimed to help entrepreneurs overcome challenges that so many new businesses often face. We have recognised the following five common challenges for entrepreneurs.
Monetising the solution
The Awards are open to non-profits as well as for-profit organisations, though increasingly social ventures are adopting hybrid models capable of delivering a sustainable business model. Often it makes sense for organisations to set up with a simple, lean model which adapts as other revenue and income opportunities arise. Social ventures also have to consider impact and whether the ability and willingness to pay in their target demographic fits with their model and funding aspirations. The excitement of social ventures is whether they can address the SDGs through private enterprise or if public funding is still valid. This question is often contingent on connecting with different technologies, with new business models and approaches. What we interrogate during the judging process is whether the entrepreneurs are aware of the different factors influencing their options for a sustainable enterprise going forward, and what this means for creating their intended impact.
The SDGs have offered a language for sustainability and outlined, alongside the Paris Agreements and IPCC, the pace of change required to limit climate change and achieve a more equitable and sustainable planet. What is clear is that we not only need clever solutions, but we need these to scale up fast. This challenge requires entrepreneurs to first focus on where they are delivering the most impact, and then what type of scale up they can achieve. This is something we spend a lot of time working through with our entrepreneurs, as it impacts funding requirements, team roles, partnerships and more.
Partnerships are essential to organisations being able to grow – and grow well. Effective partnerships can be very challenging when partners have different objectives, protocols and speeds of operation – and sometimes with what seems like a different language. Rather than feeling like an imposter, the entrepreneur must be organised and come with clarity on what will work for them, while being ready to negotiate. Their organisation has value and needs which are legitimate, even if they are currently much smaller than some of their potential partners.
Understandably there are some huge transitions as ventures grow. Navigating when to introduce structure, let alone restructure is one thing- shifting the core activities and focus of the organisation is something else. With the business context and public response to sustainability in constant flux it is important to remain responsive, while not buckling when dominant voices express doubt. Being open to change while remaining steadfast to the mission can create an uneasy dynamic, but a necessary one. Good judgement is key which is why we always encourage entrepreneurs to also make sure they are looking after themselves and each other.
Leading a team
Leading a team through the sometimes tumultuous journey of a young and growing business can be tremendously rewarding and simultaneously tough. One of the great benefits of the Awards is the opportunity to meet other like-minded entrepreneurs facing similar challenges. This is an informal benefit in addition to the support from the formal training, mentoring and networking. Believe us when we say there is no one way to lead and be an entrepreneur so you may as well embrace your individual styles and approaches.
If you recognise these challenges as something facing your own enterprise you may benefit from the support on offer to the winners of the 2019 Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards. You need to be under 35 with an initiative addressing a sustainability challenge and submit your application before 30 June to be in the running.
This blog is adapted from one that first appeared on the CISL website